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On Elizabeth Bishop’s centennial, a reading of The Bight.

Go here for the poem uninterrupted by my commentary.

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THE BIGHT

[A shallow bay. We’re in Key West, where Bishop lived for a number of years, and we’re looking at a harbor. The word bite, and the word blight (Bishop was fond of Gerard Manley Hopkins, author of Spring and Fall), should certainly be floating around in our heads while we read.]

On my birthday

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.

[this. is. low. how. A simple poetic balance, and a calm straightforward assertiveness, express themselves right away.  And consider how low we are:  Already we’re at a bight; and now the bight’s at low tide.  Already a sense of melancholy.  Yet she says the poem’s written on her birthday.  Not in a very celebratory mood, I think.]


White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.

[As if the fluidity and depth of water weren’t compromised enough by all that shallowness, there’s also morbid skeletal marl sticking up out of the bight; and the anchoring pilings seem sadly pointless, since there’s so little water.  Upright, gathered, like sticks, they resemble matches.… Note the assonance throughout: tide, like, white, dry, pilings, dry.]


Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.

[Low again.  And water like fire?  We’ve seen it before, in one of her most famous poems, At the Fishhouses:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.]

One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

[Baudelaire could make it sizzle; I cannot.  For me, the sound of nature is turned way down low.]


The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.

[That’s my music: An arid percussive click rather than any tonality; something strange and off the beat rather than something harmonic and measured.  That’s what I hear when I look most deeply at earthly life, when I dredge down to the truth.]

The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,

[You see how she’s – what’s Gioia’s word? – slyly awakening emotions in us?  Emotions having to do with what — depletion, futility, the contrast between our immense efforts to understand the depths of existence, to get the goods of life, and the paltry products of those efforts: rarely coming up with anything to show for it.]

and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.

[An elaboration of the effort-and-futility idea: We struggle (man-of-war) toward meaning (transcendent rather than earthly here, on impalpable drafts) until the sheer effort of it makes us tremble.]


The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.

[There’s something annoyingly stupid and pathetically messy about the ongoingness of human existence.  Although the scene is junky and depleted, eagerly panting little boats still keep coming in, their crappy cargo hanging out of their mouths.]

There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.

[A sharp dry eat-or-be-eaten world.  No treasures here.]


Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,


[Wonderful pun on stove – gas fire, but also the little boats crushed in any old way.]

and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.

[Nothing to show for the boats, relics of the last, not-yet-overcome trauma.  There’s something vaguely guilt-inducing about their abandonment and open vulnerability, something of  O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this! This is everyone’s messy moral and emotional life, bursting with compromise and unfinished business.]

The bight is littered with old correspondences.

[Since Baudelaire’s been mentioned, we might think here of his most famous poem, Correspondences.  But there’s nothing in Bishop’s poem akin to the almost mystical “profound unity” between our subjectivity and the natural world that appears in Baudelaire. “The unnamed correspondences [in Bishop] are not ecstatic, Emersonian revelations of relationship; rather, they are almost wholly negative,” writes Brett Candlish Millier.]

Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.

[The sharp bite of the dredge’s jaw unearths more white marl.  Same old shit.]


All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

[We conclude how?  We conclude that, looked at with biting lucidity, the shabby contingency of life is simply awful.  A blight.  Yet, contemplating another birthday, another setting out into more life, we’re compelled to note also the sheer survivability of it all, the way most of us are in it and what the hell.]


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